Twins’ Pinto showing off power, patience at plate

Twins catcher and designated hitter Josmil Pinto has hit five home runs in 19 games played this season.

Jesse Johnson/Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

MINNEAPOLIS — The Minnesota Twins have hit 11 home runs in 11 games at Target Field this year. The two longest blasts came off the bat of young Josmil Pinto.

None went further than the majestic drive Pinto launched into the second deck on Saturday against the Detroit Tigers that helped cap a 5-3 victory for Minnesota. It was the type of no-doubter — estimated at 417 feet — that felt as good for Pinto as it looked for the 28,122 fans in attendance.

"When you feel the ball, you don’t feel the bat when the ball hit the bat," Pinto said. "You say, ‘OK, this ball was crushed.’"

According to hittrackeronline.com, however, it was nowhere close to the longest home run of the month for Pinto. That would be a 459-foot shot he slugged against the Kansas City Royals on April 20 at Kauffman Stadium. Yet while Pinto’s five home runs in 19 games played this season jump off the stat sheet, it’s not the most impressive thing about how he’s handled himself at the plate so far in 2014.

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That would be his walk total, which now stands at 17, tied for second on the team behind Brian Dozier’s 19 and good for seventh in all of baseball. His on-base percentage of .405 ranks him second overall in Minnesota’s lineup — trailing just Trevor Plouffe’s .419 OBP — and ninth in the American League.

Pinto rarely looks overmatched at the plate, even though the 25-year-old Venezuela native has just 162 big league plate appearances to his name. The Twins saw him hit for a high average and a bit of power in a small sample size last year as a September call-up. Though there’s plenty of season yet to be played, Pinto is showing that his brief stint in the majors last year was no fluke.

"I just like the fact we’re getting him at-bats. I like to see him in there," said Twins manager Ron Gardenhire. "I want to see what this kid can do. I think he’s a pretty talented kid."

When six-time All-Star Joe Mauer moved from catcher to first base this winter, it seemingly paved the way for Pinto to become Minnesota’s catcher of the future. But the Twins signed Kurt Suzuki this offseason to add a veteran presence behind the plate. Suzuki was anointed as Minnesota’s starting catcher before spring training and has since started 16 of 23 games at catcher.

Even though he’s caught just seven times, Pinto has still found his way into the lineup 18 times, including 11 starts as the Twins’ designated hitter. Entering Tuesday’s series opener against the Dodgers, Pinto has had fewer plate appearances (79) than he did last September (83) but has hit one more home run and drawn 11 more walks.

As part of a lineup that has shown an increased patience at the plate, Pinto’s approach has been among the most impressive of any Twins hitter.

"He seems to be able to lay off some pretty tough pitches," Gardenhire said. "We’ve seen him chase them a little bit early in the season, but now he’s holding his ground a little bit and not chasing out of the zone as much. That’s hard to do for a young hitter up there that’s also a guy that’s driving the ball."

Through the weekend series against Detroit, Pinto is seeing 4.21 pitchers per plate appearance, up slightly from the 4.01 per plate appearance he saw last year. That’s a sign that his pitch recognition has increased a bit, which is evident by his much-improved strikeout-to-walk ratio. He struck out 3.67 times for each walk he drew last year. So far in 2014, that ratio is down to a mere 0.88, second-best on the team.

"I try to watch more of the pitchers, because I don’t know very well the kind of stuff they have," Pinto said. "I think if I take a couple more pitches and I see their pitches, I’ve got more experience."

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Yet for as well as Pinto may continue to hit, there’s still the question of his defense. At times last year, Pinto struggled with calling games, as well as his footwork behind the plate.

Pinto’s unpolished skills are a big reason that Suzuki has caught most of Minnesota’s games, which has allowed Pinto to learn plenty from the eight-year veteran. Also helping Pinto is Twins bench coach and former All-Star catcher Terry Steinbach.

"I ask many questions to those guys," Pinto said. "Terry, he helps me a lot. The same thing with Kurt. They have a lot of experience, so I need to ask a lot of things and try to learn from them."

That willingness to learn hasn’t been lost on Pinto’s manager.

"He’s a hard-working kid and he’s game-on," Gardenhire said. "We really like that."

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